IC: The Clippers appeared to upgrade their standing in the West with a productive offseason that included signing JJ Redick and luring Doc Rivers to coach? A tough schedule has led to a relatively tough start among the elite in the West. No doubt the Clips will be in the mix for a title, but what concerns do you have that need to be tightened up before the playoffs tip off?
SP: I'm not going to complain about 11-5 16 games in, considering the opposition. If there's another team in the NBA that has beaten Golden State and Houston and Oklahoma City, I don't know who it is (hint, there isn't one). They are also learning new offensive and defensive systems under Rivers, while incorporating six new players. Having said all that, there have been times when the team has looked absolutely dreadful, and there are plenty of things that need to get better.
The most obvious problem is the big man rotation, where a motley crew of Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins currently comes off the bench. Jamison sat out the first 14 games, ostensibly so as not to wear him out, and he's been better than those other guys since joining the rotation, but that bar wasn't very high. The Clippers clearly need to make at least one roster move before the playoffs, and I'm confident that they will. Whether Lamar Odom is that move, and whether that would be enough, remains to be seen. They may have to do something more drastic, but they don't really have any great trade assets -- at least not any that they're happy to lose.
The other huge issue is the defense, which has been bad -- but seems to be getting better, at least a little. The statistical view may be worse than the reality, given the number of good offenses the Clippers have faced early in the season. But the Clippers clearly need to get better on that side of the ball, and after a month it's not entirely clear that it's just a question of becoming more comfortable in the new schemes.
IC: Blake Griffin (22 and 11) and DeAndre Jordan (10 and 13) are both averaging double-doubles with mass amounts of talent swirling in their still-developing NBA games. Are you noticing signs that they are "getting" it this year? Especially in regard to Griffin, does he have some half-court moves available to rely on when the dunk lane is shut off?
SP: The smartest thing Rivers has done as coach of the Clippers so far was to convince DeAndre Jordan that he is a defensive player first and foremost, and to give Jordan the confidence to be that guy. The major stat for Jordan is really minutes per game -- he's been the starter for several seasons, but Vinny Del Negro played him about half of the game. Rivers is playing him a career high 35 minutes per, so of course he's likely to boost his per game averages -- but he's also rebounding at career high levels per minute, which is why he's currently the third best rebounder in the league. Offensive moves are almost irrelevant to Jordan -- he'll always be able to get put backs and lobs, but defense and rebounding is where he has to earn his minutes, and he's doing it so far.
Blake is shooting 55% from the field, making him the only 20 point scorer in the league above 50%, aside from that LeBron guy. He still doesn't have a go to move per se, but he's got more tools in his tool kit than he used to -- his left hand is much stronger, he'll break off the occasional up and under, he;s been known to use a drop step. He's also hitting the 18 footer much more effectively this season. The disconnect with Blake has always been that his flaws are pretty evident, making it easy to see how much better he can be. He hasn't reached his ceiling yet, but he's putting up an efficient 22/11/3 right now, making it tough to complain too much.
IC: The Pacers have found advantages by forcing teams to play 48 minutes. What is your assessment of the Clips' bench thus far and how is former Pacers point guard Darren Collison adjusting to a role off the bench behind Chris Paul?
SP: The Clippers bench has been pretty terrible this season, which is a big disappointment after having such a strong bench a season ago. Matt Barnes has missed a lot of time, and will miss the Pacers game, and his absence has hurt. And of course they lost Eric Bledsoe in the trade that brought in Redick and Dudley, and he was their secret weapon last season. We've already discussed the reserve bigs, where Jamison has been a minor improvement over the last few games.
Collison has perhaps been the biggest disappointment. The loss of Bledsoe was supposed to be mitigated by adding Collison, who wouldn't be as dynamic, but was supposed to be better at running a team. Instead, Collison has seemed lost in the half court, and his defense has been a major part of the woes of the second unit. (Jamal Crawford is a notoriously bad defender, but the Clippers were able to hide him last season between Bledsoe and Barnes -- there's been no hiding this season.) Collison had a terrific pre-season and everything seemed great -- but he started the season in a terrible funk from which he's just beginning to emerge. I like Collison and think he's going to be helpful in the long run -- if he can get his game jumpstarted it will make a big difference in that second unit.
IC: Whoa, three questions in and no Chirs Paul? OK, maybe I've been trying to avoid the painful subject. CP3 in the prime of his career, averaging 19 points, 12.2 assists and five rebounds while directing a talented ensemble of finishers both inside and out -- fun, no?
SP: What can I say? The dude's pretty good. We were excited about the Redick pickup, because he seemed like such a great fit next to Paul, and we weren't wrong. Few players in the league work better off the ball, and there's nowhere you'd rather have the ball than in CP3's hands. Redick's movement and range creates all kinds of room for Paul to operate, and he sees the slivers of opportunity around the basket better than anyone in basketball. I'm constantly amazed at how many easy baskets the Clippers get from the pick and roll, when obviously defenses know exactly what is coming. Paul makes the perfect pass at the perfect time, and it's a dunk for Jordan or Griffin. A big part of his great start is that he's playing at a faster pace, and being more aggressive than he has in the past. Rivers has convinced him that he's got to be more assertive -- which has been clear in the past, but goes against his pure point guard nature -- and it's made a major difference early in the season. He's not even shooting all that great, which is scary to think about.
IC: Chris Paul tweaks a hammy, Blake Griffin has bursa sac in elbow drained within the past week or so. Anything unsettling about these two dealing with nagging, albeit minor injuries in before December? Any reason to consider these potential problems down the road?
Griffin's elbow has been more or less like that for about two years. He stopped wearing a protective sleeve over it a few games ago, and the first time I got a good look at it, I got a little queasy. It's pretty yucky. But he's been dealing with it and it's had little or no adverse effects on him, so I'm not worried about that.
Paul's hammy is a different story. You're talking to a guy who was a Phoenix Suns fan in the early 90s, and my previous favorite point guard, Kevin Johnson, had his best years more or less ended by hamstring injuries. So it's not something that I take lightly. Paul says he's OK -- it's just a wait and see situation for now.